Whooping Crane

Conservation Status

IUCN: Endangered  |  ESA: Endangered

State of the Species

  • The extant population of the whooping crane (Grus americana) represents less than 4% of its historic size. Estimates suggest a population of at least 10,000 prior to European settlement, but the population declined drastically over time to 1,300-1,400 by 1870 and fewer than 20 individuals in the 1940s.
  • Efforts to bolster these populations, including reintroduction of a migratory population in the eastern part of North America and non-migratory populations in Florida and Louisiana, have resulted in an increase to about 600 individuals for both wild and captive whooping cranes in 2015.
  • This migratory species now occurs as four distinct subpopulations in North America. The only remaining natural population winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and breeds in protected areas along the border between the Northwest Territories and Alberta in Canada. In 1999, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) was formed with the goal of restoring a second migratory population in another part of the country. The coalition includes US and Canadian governmental authorities, as well as the AZA-accredited International Crane Foundation. WCEP is working to establish a self-sustaining eastern migratory population of whooping cranes that winters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin, a flock which currently consists of approximately 100 birds. In Louisiana, a small non-migratory flock of about 15 birds has been established by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Additionally, in 1993 a non-migratory population was reintroduced in Florida.

AZA Member Activity

Image of Whooping Crane Conservation Infographic
Between 2010 and 2014, 11 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums reported taking part in a variety of field conservation projects benefiting whooping cranes. AZA institutions also support the conservation of other crane species around the world. Over those five years alone, the AZA community invested over $3.2 million in whooping crane conservation, plus an additional ~$70,000 to support organizations, such as the AZA-accredited International Crane Foundation (ICF), that worked with multiple crane species and directed the funds based on need. AZA institutions are actively involved in projects that identify critical habitats and reintroduce cranes into the wild, as well as providing financial support to other on-the-ground conservation partners. In 2012, AZA awarded a Conservation Grants Fund award to ICF to develop cellular technology that would improve monitoring of reintroduced whooping cranes.

Learn more about these projects, along with other field conservation and research efforts undertaken by AZA member institutions, by visiting AZA's Conservation and Research Database. Institutions report projects and update existing projects on a yearly basis, and these data are used for AZA's Annual Report on Conservation and Science and related publications.

Primary Threats

  • Historically, this species dwindled in number as a result of over-harvesting, land use change in the species’ habitat, and disturbance by humans.
  • The Whooping Crane was listed as endangered in 1967. It was one of the 36 birds listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act when it was signed into U.S. law in 1973. The Canadian government listed the species in 2010 at the federal level.
  • Though some habitat has now been protected, the quality of wetland habitat, particularly at the wintering grounds in Texas, has deteriorated as a result of pollution and water use by humans.
  • Shootings are a historic threat to whooping cranes that remains to this day. In 1918, the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it illegal to hunt whooping cranes. Yet between 2010 and 2015, at least 20 whooping cranes in both the wild and reintroduced populations have been shot and killed in the United States.
  • Additionally, the species is now threatened by the high number of deaths or injuries resulting from collision with power lines, especially during migration along the Central Flyway. Marking power lines has been shown to reduce collisions by making the overhead ground wire more visible to cranes. However, most power lines have not been marked.

AZA Animal Program Leaders 

Gruiformes TAG Chair: Frederick Beall, Franklin Park Zoo
Gruiformes TAG Vice Chair:
Carol Hesch, Memphis Zoo
SSP Coordinator:
Kimberly Boardman, International Crane Foundation
Studbook Keeper: Vacant
Gruiformes TAG Field Conservation Advisor: Claire Mirande, International Crane Foundation

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